The Atlantic Festival Tackles The State of Higher Education

September 23, 2020 by Sara Wilkerson
The Atlantic Festival Tackles The State of Higher Education
(Photo by Dan McCue)

As part of the second day of its four-day festival, the Atlantic Festival held multiple panels featuring college leaders and providers discussing college reopenings and the lasting impact of the pandemic on the higher education landscape in the future. 

In a conversation moderated by Ron Brownstein, senior editor at The Atlantic, Alexander Cartwright, president of the University of Central Florida, and DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College in Maryland, discussed how their institutions have returned to the classroom and tackled the challenges they faced with reopening. 

Cartwright explained that in considering UCF’s reopening, he said his institution’s top priority was how to provide needed resources for UCF students. 

“…For us [UCF], we knew it was really critical that we create that environment where people are coming back to this university, to be able to be part of this ecosystem that encourages development, that has a belief in these students and the potential that they have… I would say it was important for us to provide that opportunity for our students to be back here [on campus] …,” said Cartwright. 


Cartwright explained that UCF prioritized first year courses and specialty courses to be held in-person for its students, resulting in only 22% of its classes being held in-person on campus. Despite the reduction in in-person classes, Cartwright notes that enrollment at UCF has increased by 3%, with over 70,000 students now enrolled at the university. 

As a leading community college in the state of Maryland, Pollard noted that her college’s priority was twofold when it came to its students. 

“We had to keep in mind that our students are both learners and consumers,” said Pollard. 

Pollard explained that Montgomery College moved its classes to a mostly virtual environment, with only 5% of its classes being held in-person. To do this, the college invested in a seven-week summer training program for its faculty. Also, the college bought additional technologies to better accommodate faculty who struggled with adapting to new technology learning. 

Brownstein further inquired about the challenges of faculty transitioning to online learning and asked if either of the panelists encountered pushback from their faculty on the matter. 

Pollard responded, “Community colleges have always been defined by the fact that we respond to the needs of our community. And our community right now needs us to do this and as a result our faculty have responded.” 

“And for those that don’t want to do that, we have serious conversations about the ways in which we can help support them to make the best decisions for our students,” continued Pollard. 

In another discussion on virtual learning with college leaders, Adam Harris, a staff writer with The Atlantic, moderated a panel discussion with college educators and experts on virtual learning in the age of COVID-19. 


In their discussion, Harris asked panelist Philip Regier, university dean for Educational Initiatives and CEO of EdPlus at Arizona State University, to explain his concept of learner agency and how technology impacts robust learning. 

Regier said he believes that technology will upend higher education’s traditional model of teaching around faculty schedules and instead focus on student-based learning. 

“We’re going to enter into an era of student agency where the student will have much more choice in determining what they take, when they take it, the modality of which they take it. Online versus face to face versus hybrid programming. And all of that is afforded by the great extent of technology. 

“Technology is going to do what it’s always done, which is turn a scarce resource into one that is broadly disseminated at a lower cost and that will be a great advantage to learners going forward,” Regier said.

Discussing the changing landscape of increased virtual education, Harris asked what the panelists have done at their institutions to better accommodate increased demand for higher learning. 

Sue Ellspermann, president of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, said that her college expanded its “Learning Anywhere” initiative, where every week students will be allowed to pick where they want their classes to be held, whether that is in-person, virtual or a hybrid option. 

Anant Agarwal, the founder and CEO of EDX, an education non-profit that offers free online courses, said his organization is providing learners with the opportunity to obtain micro-credentials through online modules that can help learners obtain further accreditation with a college degree. 

Towards the end of the discussion, Harris asked about the pandemic’s potential impact on the future of higher education. 

Agarwal responded saying that colleges will adapt what he calls “blended learning.” 

“… I think there will be a fair amount of online learning, blended with in person learning and my prediction will be that over the next two to three years, we will come to a new normal where learning will be 50% online and 50% in person,” said Agarwal. 

Agarwal continued saying, “And frankly, those universities that don’t get with the times, don’t adopt online learning and blended learning as a future of learning, I worry about the survivability of those universities… 


“I think this is the time for university leaders to be innovative, to be risk takers, they have an excuse now to take risks, just do it! It’s the right thing to do! It’s time for a new normal, embrace it.” 

“The State of Higher Ed: The Fall Semester and the Value of College” was underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. To view the panel in its entirety, the Atlantic Festival featured the panel online via its YouTube channel

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